The Department of Education is the government agency that contenders for the city’s next chief watchdog say they’d most like to scrutinize if elected public advocate. Participating in a televised debate last night, three of five candidates said education would be their top priority, offering up lofty goals as a way to improve the $25 billion, 1.1 million-student school system.
Their goals for fixing the public schools varied and often seemed ambitious for the authority and capacity limitations that comes with the public advocate’s office. The office can introduce city legislation and is sometimes represented on commissions, but its budget is less than $2.3 million and most of its influence comes from the bully pulpit.
But the candidates’ talking points on education during the debate suggested how they’d seek to use that bully pulpit.
“We aren’t teaching our kids anything that is preparing them for the future,” said Reshma Saujani, a former deputy public advocate. Saujani said she wants to help the Department of Education boost its computer science education and referred often to Girls Who Code, a summer education program that she founded.
Monitoring education services isn’t a big departure from how the current public advocate, Bill de Blasio, has used the office. He’s scrutinized reforms to special education and published more than a dozen reports analyzing how a variety of policies and initiatives under Mayor Bloomberg have impacted the city school system, ranging from school closures to overcrowding to career and technical education .
But a new administration is coming in and many mayoral candidates, including de Blasio, have pledged to take the school system in a vastly different direction. And some public advocate candidates on Thursday discussed putting an end to controversial Bloomberg policies that may not be common in the next administration.
City Council member Tish James, a frequent Bloomberg critic, said her top goals would be to demand a larger share of education funding from the state, and a ban on both school closures and charter schools that operate in city-owned buildings.
Cathy Guerriero, a businesswoman and education professor, said she’d fight overturn mayoral control, calling the governance structure under the Bloomberg administration “an abject failure on the backs of New York City public school children.”
The issues raised by James and Guerriero are also important to the city teachers union, which has not made an endorsement in the race.
Update: It’s also probably not a bad idea for candidates to position themselves on the other side of Bloomberg when it comes to education. A New York Times poll on Bloomberg’s legacy as mayor showed that his handling of the school system is one of his only areas that he hasn’t improved.
A fourth candidate, State Senator Daniel Squadron, said he’d focus on other agencies, but that he would appoint someone under him to specifically look after children’s interests. Like Guerriero, state Senator Daniel Squadron said the Bloomberg administration had ignored parent voices, but he did not call for an end to mayoral control. Instead, Squadron said he’s proposed a partnership with local parent councils to elevate their concerns.
Sidique Wai, the fifth candidate in the debate, said he’d focus on the New York City Policy Department, an agency that he currently works for.